Tuesday, October 20, 2009



Isn’t this the elephant in the room? Secular enviros are scared to death to mention it, as are religious ecologists. Those most willing are the engineer-rationalist types, who have been warning of overshoot for decades now. It’s well past time this issue was brought into the deliberations on global ecological deterioration.

The human-earth relationship reached a critical moment when we pushed the planet past biocapacity, sometime around 1986. World population then was around 4.8 billion The latest figures, from 2006, put us at 130% of biocapacity, with the average biocapacity at 5.25 acres/person, whereas the average footprint (carbon, developed land, and food/fiber/timber) was 6.725. World population now is 6.7 billion. Population is definitely a critical component of our current, and potentially fatal, overshoot. Even at 4.8 billion, we were squeezing out other species’ habitat, and the extinction curve that is currently accelerating, now well over one hundred species a day, was already rising.

But it is absolutely critical to note the relative proportion of biocapacity used by the rich and the poor. The wealthiest 1 billion now use 100% of biocapacity (Jim Merkel, Radical Simplicity)! The remaining 5.7, living marginally in cities and rural areas, use the overshoot amount. This does not mean we would reach steady-state if we simply got rid of those rich billion, which includes you and me. The desperately poor repeatedly cut down fledgling trees and sometimes eat “bushmeat” in the form of our simian cousins, simply to survive. But George Monbiot details the huge damage that the wealthy inflict upon the earth in a sobering recent post.

Despite global recession, wealth is increasing in some nations, along with population. The human drive for more and better has the developing world rapidly becoming just like us, or at least like the Europeans, who maintain half the carbon footprint of the US. For example, the biggest growth in car sales is in China and India. Along with the cars comes a huge growth in infrastructure as roads and parking space replacing crucial farmland. China no longer feeds itself, and though India, thanks to the Green Revolution, remains a net exporter of food, it is rapidly replacing arable land with sprawling cities and hydrodams. As for highway development, in 1968 I watched a motor rally on one of three national highways in India, spectators five-deep all along the route. It was one and a half lanes wide, heading north-south through Madhya Pradesh, across the Malwa Plain. Drivers were lucky to make it much past 40 miles/hour. Now India is building the Golden Quadrilateral, an interstate highway system reaching all the major cities. Paved roads are reaching further and further into the hinterlands, helping booming economic development. Many of those who owned cars ten years ago in places like Mumbai only had them as status symbols, because traffic density precluded actually driving them. Now vehicular embodied energy will be compounded by actually using petroleum and cement, as well as sacrificing land.

Subsistence farming, requiring additional family members to work the land, severely stresses the land, and competes too successfully for habitat needed by other species. But when one compares their modest footprint with the industrialized billion who feed at the top of the chain, the differences are huge. (See my previous post on the Remnant of the Meek). We in the US consume twice the carbon that Europeans and Japanese do, but seventeen times the amount consumed in Malawi. So having a child is a much more important decision in our culture than theirs, whose death rate has moreover doubled due to the scourge of AIDS.

We know that the principal indicator of number of offspring is the level of female education. Wherever young women have increased their level of education, the birthrate has significantly dropped. So it concerns me that highly educated and materially comfortable young couples in the US frequently have more than two children. If you inquire a bit, their usual answer is that they want to increase the pool of “good genes,” with occasional references to the rate of population growth among the underclasses, especially those of alien cultures and religions.

In a world that is already overpopulated, and the lifestyle of those with relative wealth the most significant factor in resource use, a decision to have only one biological child is much more ethical (see Bill McKibben, Maybe One, where he argues convincingly against the myth of psychic scarring from being an only child. See also the powerful graphic in New Solutions (#8, March 2006) for the huge range of resources the typical American infant will use in their lifetime: 3.3 million pounds of minerals, metals, and fuels). Having two is pushing things, since the population of the developed world is already using 100% of biocapacity. With the figure heavily dependent on lifestyle, a global population somewhere between 2 to 4 billion would allow for several of the ecosystems currently under human assault to recover, at least partially.

Parents the world over make their own decisions about having children. Even China has recently loosened its one child policy. I have discussed the option of having only one biological child with each of my sons. Jacob, the elder, thought for a long time that having one and adopting one was the way to go. But after deliberation with his wife, they decided to have two. Jesse is now also married, but still childless, and similarly speaks of one biological child. But his wife, who comes from a family with four children, always speaks in the plural.

Short of the government making rules in the matter, perhaps this choice needs to be more informed by the social group. Quaker Earthcare Witness, of which I am a member, counsels prospective parents to have a clearness committee with members of their Meeting before conceiving, to help them make the choice prayerfully after considering all the implications. It thus becomes an extension of the clearness for marriage, which is a serious matter, sometimes requiring many meetings to explore in depth. This seems like an intrusion of privacy to most people, but the social and ecological consequences of having a child in a rich country are enormous. Many thoughtful people acknowledge that the earth has too many human beings on it. If we don’t voluntarily limit our offspring, doesn’t it make sense for government to use its authority for the sake of the whole? The alternative is to leave matters to the Four Horsemen, who are already sharpening their swords.

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